Wallingford Town Councilor Craig Fishbein has filed a complaint under the state’s Freedom of Information Act against Wallingford Center Inc., which receives funding from the town, and he has come under some criticism for doing so. Amid that criticism, another town councilor noted that Fishbein was also one of three civic leaders who last year opposed spending taxpayer money on the renovation of the parking lot behind Simpson Court.
While Fishbein’s actions in both situations may have lacked subtlety, the questions he raised were raised in the public interest: What’s in it for the taxpayer? Why should public money, whether state or local, go to these private entities? And what, exactly, will they do with that money? In asking such questions, Fishbein is just doing the job he was elected to do.
Fishbein’s tone has certainly put some people off — he is, after all, a trained attorney, and members of Wallingford Center Inc. may have felt they were being cross-examined by him at a recent council meeting. (Only those who were present or who watched it on TV can say.) And we can all understand that a largely voluntary organization, whose avowed purpose is to do good for the town, enjoys the respect of the general public.
But the center does receive $78,650 in town funds each year, and the taxpayers are entitled to understand how and why it is spent. This is essentially what Fishbein has been asking for, for the past year, by seeking the dates and agendas of the meetings held by Wallingford Center Inc. This information has not been provided, thus his complaint.
The center, however, considers itself a private nonprofit organization, working “for the benefit of all the people of Wallingford,” and therefore holds that the FOIA doesn’t apply to it. No, the Center is not a part of town government, but if it plans to seek a legal opinion from the town’s Legal Department, that would seem to strengthen Fishbein’s position.
It’s a gray area. But the argument that sufficient oversight is already provided by the Center’s board of directors also falls short; if the Center is not a public entity, then the public is not represented in overseeing the spending of the public money that provides most of its budget.
While we would very much like for all public servants and civic leaders to treat each other with appropriate civility — and while we sincerely hope that this issue can be resolved in a way that keeps principles above personalities — this may be a time when the public interest requires aggressive support.
Fishbein’s request for information was reasonable. The center’s failure to respond, after a whole year, was not.